Megaminds: Wash. U.'s search for the world's supermen (and women) of memory

Megaminds: Wash. U.'s search for the world's supermen (and women) of memory
Illustration by Kelly Brother

A man in a fedora walks into an empty classroom on the second floor of a building on Washington University's campus and waits in the darkened room. He has never been here before — not to this classroom, not even to St. Louis.

The professor arrives and flicks on a light. Soon students dressed in the 8 a.m. class uniform of track pants and sweatshirts begin to trickle through the door. As each enters the room, the fedora man walks over and introduces himself with a handshake. Before long the entire room is a din of chatter and tapping laptop keys. There are roughly 40 students assembled.

The professor asks for their attention. But instead of beginning his lecture, he steps back, and the man in the fedora stands up.

Henry "Roddy" Roediger III is on the hunt for the best memorizers in the world.
Jennifer Silverberg
Henry "Roddy" Roediger III is on the hunt for the best memorizers in the world.
Tom Kavanaugh flexed his own superior memory muscle in 2006 on Jeopardy!, taking home $142,602 in prize money.
Jennifer Silverberg
Tom Kavanaugh flexed his own superior memory muscle in 2006 on Jeopardy!, taking home $142,602 in prize money.

"Hi, everyone. My name is Chester Santos. I am the 2008 USA National Memory Champion," he says, walking to the front of the room. "If you remember meeting me when you walked in today, if I shook your hand, gave you my name, got your name, if you remember that happening, please stand up."

Chair legs scrape as the majority of the room rises.

"John?" Santos asks, pointing to a shaggy student closest to the far wall.

John nods and sits.

"Charlotte," Santos continues, starting with the girl at the front of the row next to John. He goes to the boy behind her, "Dan."

Santos starts to pick up speed.

"Helene. Sophie. Keisha. Vivienne. Nick. Jackie. Ashley. Prateek. Ashley. Ben. John. Neil. Huh," he pauses at an Asian girl about halfway through the room. "I'm not 100 percent positive on you. I'll come back."

He continues: "Alec. Shane. Isaiah. Rohit. Marlow. Emily. Laura. Deena. Talia. Jeremy. Moe. Anna. Reggie. Jessica. Wayan. Gaithree. Rosie.

"And then you," he says swinging back around to the lone girl standing in the middle of the room, "it's Kim."

"Yes," she nods.

"Wow," someone murmurs, and the room breaks into applause.

After meeting them for mere seconds — jet-lagged and not necessarily in the best "memory shape" of his life — Santos correctly names 33 students. In the past he's successfully made it through an auditorium of 200. It's not just a quick one-off, either. As the floor opens up to questions, he calls on each person by name.

The year he took the title, Santos memorized a 135-digit sequence, and studied and recited the order of a pack of playing cards in a minute and 27 seconds. At a public event in March, he named all 535 men and women of the U.S. Congress as well as their district number.

"I've gotten better and better and better," he tells the students.

After the demo is over, Santos' handler walks him down a flight of stairs and outside toward the Psychology Building next door, where for the last three days he has been through a battery of tests designed to unlock the secrets of his brain. Some of the challenges feel familiar — recognizing names and faces, memorizing word lists — but others are intended to probe his limitations.

"My prediction," Santos says, confident after his second day of testing, "is we're still going to perform above average."

By "we," Santos is referring to his fellow "memory athletes." In the United States there are roughly 50 active competitors, called "MAs" for short; in places like the United Kingdom, Germany and China there are hundreds more. In meets all over the globe these men and women converge to outthink one another in a series of mental tasks designed to test the limits of human memory capacity. Records are broken at these events every year; some believe the brain's powers of recall are limitless. But if there is a ceiling, the memory athletes will hit it.

He doesn't know it at the time, but Santos' boast about his fellow MAs turns out to be prescient.

"These people are just remarkable," says Henry "Roddy" Roediger III, a doctor of psychology, who, as part of Wash. U.'s Superior Memory Project, has invited the world's foremost megaminds to St. Louis. "Almost every test we give the memory athletes, even though they've never taken these tests before.... They do better."

In one video clip, Clive Wearing slouches far down into a couch, fingers laced, looking diminutive in his cream-colored suit.

"It's been like death," he says morosely in a clipped British accent. "The brain has been totally inactive. Day and night the same. No thoughts at all."

Suddenly, he gasps in surprise and leaps out of his seat. The camera swings around to follow.

"Oh, look who's come!" he says rushing toward the woman who's just entered the room. "Marvelous!"

He twirls her around, kissing her, laughing. The woman is his wife, Deborah, who's only been out of the room for a short time. Clive doesn't know this — he thinks it has been years. He doesn't realize he has been doing this for three decades, every time his wife re-enters a room after a few minutes' absence. This heartbreaking cycle began after a virus attacked Wearing's central nervous system and destroyed his hippocampus, the part of the brain closely linked with short- and long-term memory.

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